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  • Unfinished Trials and Sentences1917 at 100
  • Dominick Lawton (bio)
A review of China Miéville, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution ( London: Verso, 2017). Cited in the text as o.

China Miéville's novelistic account of the Russian Revolution, written for its centenary, shares a title—but not a subtitle—with the 1928 film that Sergei Eisenstein made to mark its ten-year anniversary. For its international release, Eisenstein's film was retitled Ten Days That Shook the World, a name borrowed from the most famous English-language account of the revolution: the American journalist John Reed's eyewitness report (1919, with a foreword by Vladimir Lenin). A certain implicit history of the last century is conveyed just by comparing Reed's title with Miéville's. Though nearly a hundred years apart, the two authors have in common a clear and pronounced ideological sympathy with the Bolsheviks, which may strike many readers as the most provocative or unusual thing about Miéville's work. Miéville states clearly from the outset that he writes from a place of partisan attachment to the revolutionary project, and the guiding ideology of his text could be described as nonsectarian (and often [End Page 251] self-critical) Marxism. In moving from Reed's Ten Days to Miéville's October, however, we transition from the rhetoric of world-historical, and current, events to that of a contingent, specific tale. The space of action and consequence, Reed's "World" shrinks to Miéville's "Russia." Moreover, the radically disruptive open-endedness denoted by Reed's title—the world has been shaken, its eventual state of rest yet unclear—yields to the closure of Miéville's term story, with its connotations of narrative shape and chronological borders. Of course, Miéville, unlike Reed, is writing retrospectively, a quarter century after the fall of the Soviet Union. The word story, though, also points to the most idiosyncratic aspect of Miéville's book: its literary style. Although a number of scholarly books within the last year or two have been written to mark the revolution's centenary, summing up its course and legacy from the detached pose of academic history, Miéville's contribution is unique not only in its leftism but also in its rendering of events in Russia from February to October 1917 as an avowedly literary narrative.

The end result is an engaging, beautifully written, thoughtful, and informative book that is hard to locate in a single genre but that might be described as a gripping nonfictional novel. The eminent Soviet historian Sheila Fitzpatrick, surveying a number of recent histories of the revolution and the Soviet order in the London Review of Books, made special mention of Miéville's work both for its approach to the revolution as an inspiring event, rather than a now-irrelevant failure, and for its often moving artistry.1 Although Miéville's acknowledgments state that the original idea for the book came from Sebastian Budgen, his editor at the leftist popular and intellectual press Verso, Miéville himself is exceptionally qualified to produce a novelistic work devoted to 1917. Politically, he is a long-standing member of multiple left-wing groups and parties, mostly Trotskyist, as well as the author of a dissertation on Marxism and international law.2 Much more prominently, however, he is an established author of science fiction and speculative (or, as he puts it, "weird") fiction: like October, his celebrated fictional oeuvre evinces a fascination with both left politics and urban settings, including Embassytown (2012), The City and the City (2009), and the Bas-Lag trilogy (2000–2004), among other works. The only aspects of his October that much [End Page 252] resemble those of a conventional or popular history are an insert of black-and-white photographs in the middle, depicting key historical players and scenes, and an extensive bibliography, with lively and admittedly nonscholarly annotations. The experience of reading October is most comparable to that of reading a novel, but when the text's contents are taken into account, it sits somewhere at the border of novel, history, and even propaganda. (I do not use this...


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